On a damp Tuesday evening last week, I was caroling in a city park with members of my chorus. The setting was festive, with decorations, lights, people milling around bundled against the cold. A man stopped to listen to us, and started talking loudly while we were singing, about how he loved carols, how we reminded him of his childhood. He was unkempt, carrying a six pack and unsteady on his feet, having – as an old family member would have said – “a drop taken.” I kept singing and smiling, keeping one eye on this guy – he was probably harmless, but who knows? Suddenly the man came forward and stood next to one of our basses, and asked if he could sing along. Rather than pull away, our bass held out his music so the man could see it, and in a croaky voice he made his best effort to accompany us as we sang “Silent Night.” I kept glancing over at him – his eyes were closed, he was swaying, now in time with the music, and singing away, clearly in some kind of bliss that took him elsewhere. As soon as we stopped singing he started talking again, and our bass made an attempt to listen, until we needed a note from the pitch pipe and he excused himself. The man watched a bit longer and then drifted away.
I was impressed that evening at the generosity of our bass, who made a split second decision to share his music with this dicey gentleman. I’m afraid my own impulses, had I been the one approached, would have been less kind. That night and many times since I have thought about this drunk and probably homeless man, about what might have happened in his life that led him from a childhood love of carols, to wandering alone around a city park watching other people celebrate the season. I am saddened that my own reaction was one of fear and suspicion, rather than of compassion.
In recent months and years and decades and centuries, young black men in America continue to be shot by white policemen, for no reason other than sheer unadulterated racism. Regardless of the individual circumstances, in each case it is likely that if the young “suspect” were white, there would have been no shooting. Thinkers and politicians and pundits continue to address the cultural divide that separates us and makes life treacherous for youngsters of color. I’ve been a vociferous protester, objecting, condemning the police, shaking my head. Tragic. But last week in the park, my suspicions bubbled to the surface all the same.
Fear is primitive and hard wired into us….it is difficult to control. That’s what we’re talking about, fear. When we see a video of five young white cops jumping on a much older black man, and ignoring his pleas for air….what can fuel such savage response except fear? What is it that so viscerally evokes the fear response? A threat from The Other. Had I encountered the drunken man from the park walking alone on a dark city street, I would have been wary, and would have had a negative response if he had approached me. It was the bridge of a Christmas carol, and his response to it, that allowed me to consider his humanity, his loneliness and need for kindness and inclusion.
I know the police have an enormously difficult job. Perhaps they too need, in their training, the service of a similar bridge that will allow, in intense moments of confrontation or danger, to be able to recognize that the opponent, suspect, “perp”, or weird homeless guy, is a fellow traveler with a soul. A carol will not stop a gun, but the perception of common humanity might save a life.
©Poets Sinews, 2014. Reuse with permission.